Anandi Mani

ideas42’s network of academic affiliates represent some of the world’s foremost experts in behavioral science. With the ideas42 Affiliate Series, we invite them to share their insights and what inspires their exploration into human behavior.

For the second interview of the ideas42 Affiliate Series, we recently invited Anandi Mani to visit our New York office to give a talk about her numerous research projects and meet with various members of our team. Anandi is an ideas42 affiliate whose research focuses on development economics, the psychology of poverty, and political economy. Among other things, her investigations explore how the conditions of poverty affect cognitive capacity, and, as of late, how the failure to aspire may be yet another consequence of poverty. After her talk, she sat down with us to share some of her thoughts on behavioral science:

What drew you to the field of behavioral science?

When I arrived in grad school, I had very little economics background. I often felt an outsider in the sense of not being entirely persuaded by a lot of the assumptions that we made in the models that we studied. For instance, I often find making decisions difficult because I don’t know whether I want one option or another. According to economic models, I should be able to specify costs and benefits and pick one option – or just toss a coin if the options come out looking the same! Making macro inferences from these models about how individuals behaved didn’t feel fully persuasive. So I found myself questioning these things. I also have a pragmatic bent, so I’m interested in what works. All of this drew me to behavioral science.

What’s one of the most surprising discoveries about human behavior?

Regardless of the extent of work experience, people overwhelmingly tend to underestimate the amount of time any project takes. Even with experience, the unanticipated time component of a project never seems to shrink. Yet, conversely, if we knew every single thing that could go wrong with and hence delay a project, we’d probably never get into it in the first place! I wonder if we just willfully learn to ignore these costly delays and challenges because that’s what makes us try new things? I’m not quite sure. 

Tell us about aspirations failure. How can understanding aspirations failure inform approaches to poverty alleviation?

Having goals spurs us to greater effort. The often ignored flipside of this is that, our outcomes and the narratives we have for them also shape our future aspirations. I remember anecdotes from developing countries reported in Poor Economics where they talk about how parents interpret the outcome of their child doing poorly in school. Rich families and poor families have very different interpretations. A poor family probably ends up saying “my kid isn’t smart enough to make it through school” while a rich family will say “there must be something wrong with the system; it must not be stimulating enough for my child.” 

Having these different narratives really changes how parents view the child (and hence how the child views herself). It affects the aspirations that they have for the child – and finally, the outcomes the child ends up with. These narratives mean that a poor child doesn’t get as many chances for success as a rich child.

What have you learned in applying behavioral science that has changed the way you work? 

I have to confess that I feel like one of those doctors who tend to others’ health but don’t necessarily adhere to the best practices for themselves. I am still trying to find successful strategies to build more (time) slack into my daily/weekly routine.

How do you use behavioral science in your daily life (or recommend that people use behavioral science in their daily lives)?

I try the usual things like smaller plates and deadlines because I think they’re effective. But another thing I try with my spouse is trying to be conscious of self-serving biases when it comes to divvying up household chores, especially when there’s a three-year-old to be taken care of! We have been trying to write down how much work each of us is doing at home, and try to make a case for the other person’s point of view on this. We try to see if this can make for a smoother negotiations process when we’re figuring out whose turn it is to do the chores. This works about 70% of the time!